Famed civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch calls it a modern-day civil rights issue.

“College athletes are citizens and their rights are being deprived by the NCAA in a way that’s basically collusion,” says Branch. “The NCAA system is not only unjust, it’s unstable. The NCAA is in perpetual scandal mode.”

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera said, “The current system basically screws a bunch of kids, a lot of them disadvantaged kids. They have a labor force that does all the work but doesn’t get paid. It’s a plantation system. This issue is about American values and the right way to treat people you have power over.”

What Branch and Nocera are talking about is the NCAA’s archaic amateur model, specifically the fact that while college athletes don’t get paid, the NCAA, college administrators and coaches, television executives and on-air personalities, and the shoe and sporting goods companies are all making a ton of money on the backs of the athletes that produce the product.

“It’s an unjust and unstable system,” says Branch, who wrote a landmark article entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” in the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic magazine.

There’s a basic fairness issue at stake here. Big-time college sport, basically football and men’s basketball at the Division I level, is a multi-billion dollar business. It simply isn’t fair that the athletes responsible for the product are limited to one-year-renewable scholarships that can be yanked at the discretion of the coach.

“The big issue is that everybody’s trying to deny there’s a marketplace here,” says Nocera. “They look at big-time college football and basketball like it’s an extracurricular activity like chess club. Look, if you pay the players, 95% of wrong-doing goes away. If you allow players to be paid, the booster stuff goes away. And who cares if an agent pays for Mom to go on a recruiting trip with her son?” (See: “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes“).

The question of whether or not to pay college athletes has been a sports issue for some time now. But it’s much more than a sports issue. As Branch says, this is a civil rights issue. It’s a social and economic justice issue.

“I think college athletes have been conned out of their rights,” says Branch. “The NCAA’s amateur ideals are contrived. The current system needs to be abolished.”

It’s really not that outlandish of a concept. The outdated Olympic amateurism model was eventually broken down. Olympic athletes can now get paid for their talents. The AAU predicted that all hell would break loose in the Olympic movement if amateur athletes started to receive financial rewards. In reality, the Olympic transition from the amateur model has been pretty smooth.

The NCAA continues to fight the idea of paying college athletes.

“As long as I’m president of the NCAA, we will not pay student-athletes to play sports,” says NCAA President Mark Emmert. “Compensation for students is just something I’m adamantly opposed to.”

University athletic directors are chiming in by claiming they’re too poor to pay players, that they’re simply isn’t any money in their budgets to pay college athletes.


“I don’t have patience with schools that say they can’t pay players because they don’t have the money,” says Nocera. “A lot of these schools pay their coach $4 million a year. If you can’t pay the players then get out of the FBS (NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision). Right now, the idea of paying players is a foreign concept in college sports. The NCAA can adapt. Major League Baseball (MLB) was against free agency. They adapted.”

It’s time — in fact, it’s past time — to abolish the college sports plantation system.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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